By Ray Burton, I.S.S.A., fitness coach, personal trainer and author
“Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet.”
Kim rolled over and reached for alarm that rang much too early. It was a restless night’s sleep as usual and the pain in her neck reminds her that today is going to be another long day at a job that used to give her joy.
She reaches for her favorite black skirt but sighs and throws it back in the closet. It doesn’t fit like it used to. Depressed, she doesn’t know what to wear anymore. She feels bloated and fat. Most mornings she can go to the bathroom and count on her morning “meditation” to feel better but lately even her monthly cycle has been off.
Kim opens the bedroom door and sneaks a peak at her husband; she hasn’t been able to be intimate with him in weeks even though she loves him very much. She realizes that she is not interested in many of the things that she used to enjoy. She just seems to be spending most of her time irritable and tired. It doesn’t help that her hair is frazzled and at 32 she keeps getting visits from the acne fairy.
Kim is like a lot of women these days, overworked, stressed out and fighting depression. She hates the thought of seeing the doctor and taking medications but she doesn’t know what else to try. Kim is not alone. 90 percent of all visits to the doctor are for stress related disorders.
Does Kim’s situation sound familiar? One of the most common problems I hear from clients is that they felt fatigued, anxious or depressed. And they often have trouble sleeping, even though they are exhausted.
Most of them share a common underlying theme, adrenal burnout. It’s the result of racing through life with a constantly aroused sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system.
In the heightened nervous state of adrenal burnout, the body overproduces adrenalin, Cortisol and other stress hormones. Eventually, this causes the adrenal glands, the front line in the stress reaction, to show wear and tear and become depleted. This frequently leads to impairment in the thyroid gland, which can cause a further decline in energy level and mood. This is one of the reasons why so many women have thyroid glands that don’t work well.
The first step for Kim and women like her is to exercise. Taking personal time for you in of itself is a great stress reducer but when that time involves exercise the benefit is two fold. Simply going from out of shape to fit reduces stress levels by increasing a sense of well being and self confidence.
Feeling confused and overwhelmed is a common stress symptom and through exercise the blood flow to your brain is improved, bringing additional sugars and oxygen and a sense of wellbeing. This increased blood flow also brings the precious endorphin. The post workout endorphins are chemicals secreted by the body after intense exercise and they make you feel great. They are a legal and healthy “high”, a gift from Mother Nature.
How to exercise to reduce stress is a common question that is easy to answer. The required amount of exercise time required to decrease your stress level is minimal. If you want to only apply moderate intensity to your exercise regime, then 30 minutes of walking or other exercise 5 times a week works perfectly. For those that like to exercise more intensely(getting your heart rate to 70% or more of your max heart rate), 20-30 minutes 3 times a week will do wonders for you.
When starting your stress reduction exercise program make sure you include all three kinds of fitness.
The first kind of fitness is flexibility. Tying in with your stress reduction theme, if you combine a tai chi or yoga type program, not only will you gain flexibility but you will also reap benefits from the meditative and calmness aspects of these disciplines. Taking as little as 10 minutes from your day to focus on your breathing and flexibility will help shift your attention from a stressful situation to your body, allowing you to cope more effectively with any situation.
Short, rapid breathing is usually associated with stress, so the objective is to deliver as much oxygen to the body as possible and just relax.
The second kind of fitness is cardiovascular work or aerobics. Doing your cardio will not only burn fat and reduce the health risks associated with the mid-line bulge but also increase your blood flow and vitality.
The third kind of fitness is muscular work or weight lifting. Many women use weight lifting to “work out” their stress and leave their problems in a pool of “glow” on the gym floor. Lifting weights changes your shape, releases endorphins and increases your confidence in many aspects of life. Weight lifting if kept under an hour has a very positive effect on your hormone levels. It increases the fat burning ones and decreases the catabolic hormones like Cortisol and DHEA. These hormones when released repeatedly over time can cause several problems including depression and cardiovascular disease.
Getting Exercise In
If you just can’t find time for a structured program, then your stress is probably caused by doing too much! Here are some quick ways to beat stress during the day:
Walk to work. Some might say that this will involve an extra hour a day to your schedule.I say “So what? Why are you in such a hurry?” If you do live far away, then just park the car a half mile away. You can also get off the bus before your stop and walk the rest of the way.
At the mall, park your car far away. Not only will you get some exercise but you won’t get dings in your paint job.
Use your bike to get around. If the last time you were on a bike was when you were a kid then you forget how much fun it can be!
Take the stairs instead of the escalator. When I went to Las Vegas there would be a line up in front of every escalator, and not a soul on the stairs. It’s crazy that some people would wait two minutes to glide up these escalators when they could be up there in 10 seconds and get some exercise.
The bottom line is that stress comes from feeling out of control. Only you can regain that control and taking care of yourself. Exercise is the first step.
Ray Burton is a personal trainer in Calgary Alberta. He has trained for Golds Gym, World Health Club and the Canadian Military and is the author of Fat To Fit. Ray enjoys helping people live better lives through his fitness tips newsletter